JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
Maj. Daniel Brillman’s passion for helping military veterans led him to co-found a company that is bridging the gap between healthcare and social service providers such as food banks and homeless shelters.
Brillman, currently an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Defense Innovation Unit – an organization tasked with helping the military make faster use of emerging commercial technologies – grew up in Philadelphia and attended Yale University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science.
During his senior year, he decided to take flying lessons.
“My instructor was a Marine Reserve colonel who taught at the Yale airport for fun,” Brillman said. “He started introducing me to the reserves. I also had a mentor who was an Air Force colonel and he said, ‘You should definitely join the Air Force.’”
Upon graduation, Brillman moved to New York to do consulting for a financial firm, but he also followed his instructor’s advice and joined the Air Force Reserve.
“I always wanted to serve, but didn’t know how I wanted to do it,” he said. “I liked that I could maintain my civilian job at the same time. I really fell into the Reserve through my friends and flight instructor.”
Brillman went to officer training school in 2007, pilot training thereafter, and made his way to the Reserve 514th Air Mobility Wing’s 76th Air Refueling Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
He was stationed at McGuire for 11 years and was deployed twice to the Middle East. After his last deployment, he decided to go back to school to pursue an MBA at Columbia University in 2010.
“When I was in my second year of business school, a lot of veterans I had served with started calling me about health and social service issues,” he explained. “These were all Reservists going back to their hometowns after deployments. They thought because of my educational background that I would know what to do. But I didn’t.”
Brillman said he started calling different housing providers and other social service agencies in an attempt to help out his fellow service members. The challenge to navigate the complex social service system was so profound, Brillman wrote a paper about it.
“The paper focused on technology and why we should be able to share important information across these different social services,” he said. “The dean heard about it and passed it on to a venture capitalist who was a graduate of West Point. I worked with him to build out the idea.”
Shared Goals and a New Partnership
Around the same time, Brillman was introduced to Taylor Justice through a veteran program at Columbia Business School that matched current and incoming students. Justice, who had attended West Point and served in the Army, had experienced his own challenges navigating social services. Coincidentally, Justice was interested in solving the same problem Brillman was. The first time they met, they spent five hours in a coffee shop brainstorming.
“We wanted to build meaningful coordinated care networks so that different service providers could have visibility into the client’s care journey and the client wouldn’t have to navigate their own way to separate services. We needed money, engineers and customers,” said Brillman.
“Our approach was to align the different service organizations to communicate together around a shared client – the veteran or their family member. Our solution was initially technology. And we understood that to support the technology, we needed to deploy people on the ground to build these networks,” he added.
Unite Us is Founded
In 2013, Brillman, Justice, and a third co-founder, Andrew Price, launched Unite Us with the goal of standardizing communication between health and social services and improving service delivery for individuals. The original infrastructure was specifically designed to help veterans.
“What’s interesting about the veteran population is that it is one of the most diverse,” Brillman said. “It includes different races, socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.” Brillman and Justice understood that what they learned about veterans would one day be applicable to the larger population.
Between November 2014 and December 2015, Unite Us launched its first three networks. In 2016, the team launched an additional four networks across the country.
“The goal was to help as many veterans as possible,” says Brillman. “We didn’t want anyone to fall through the cracks.”
In 2017, working within the healthcare sector, Unite Us expanded to serve all populations. “We wanted to make sure people get the services they need,” Brillman said. “We now work with innovative and visionary leaders in the healthcare industry, not only taking care of veterans, but anyone who needs it. We’ve become the standard of how healthcare providers and community-based organizations can work together to improve people’s health.”
In 2019, Unite Us raised more than $35 million in Series B funding and partnered with enterprise clients such as Kaiser Permanente, CVS Health, and the state of North Carolina. The company currently employs more than 165 team members at eight offices across the country, with headquarters in both Manhattan and Los Angeles.
For his work at Unite Us, Business Insider magazine recently named Brillman one of its 30 leaders under 40 who are working to transform U.S. healthcare. Rock Health and CB Insights also both recognized Unite Us as a digital startup to watch.
Applying Lessons from the Military to the Business World
Brillman said he sees a number of similarities between the business world and the Air Force Reserve. “From a cultural perspective, at least in the flying world, there is always a hierarchy. You know who’s in charge, but there is a flat, mission-driven approach. We have that in our company. We are a family, and we all have a stake in Unite Us’ success,” he said.
“From an operations perspective, understanding how flying works, even if it’s not perfect, is important to helping all make sure you can execute the mission. While my skillsets from the Reserve helps me run the business, I rely on our expert team members in our organization to make sure we’re on track.”
To that end, Brillman recognized his own strengths and limitations.
“I knew I would be able to lead and formulate the problem and solution set, but I can’t code. I also needed to find someone who wanted to sell and knock down doors. Finding people who complemented my skillset was really important.”
Lately, Brillman said he and Justice have been focused on leading the growth of the company while ensuring people have what they need to be successful.
His final advice? “One person can’t do it all,” he said. “You need to be energized about solving the problem and remember that solving big problems doesn’t happen overnight. You have to have serious grit.” #ReserveResilient
(Rautenberg is assigned to the 514th Air Mobility Wing public affairs office.)